The bizarre, sad tale of Togo's fake national soccer team.

The stadium scene.
Oct. 4 2010 10:10 AM

Africa's Soccer Impostors

The bizarre, sad tale of Togo's fake national team.

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Flash forward to the fake team that played against Bahrain. Despite Tchanile Bana's insistence that he was the scam's lone mastermind, it was obvious he had help—the Bahraini authorities had received correspondence and paperwork directly from the interim committee. The sublimely named Antoine Folly, a member of the interim committee, was livid with rage. "I feel hurt, profoundly shocked by this criminal behavior," he seethed. "All light must be shed on this matter to unmask and sanction any accomplices [Bana] may have at the heart of the federation." A few days later, Folly was arrested for his alleged role in the fraud. He was joined in prison by the soccer federation's secretary—who also happens to be the brother-in-law of Gen. Memene.

In other words, the machinations of a crooked regime in Angola led to a fearsome attack on the Togo national team, which in turn preserved the power of a group of conspirators who perpetrated the fraud of the bogus national team. (Their motive appears to have been money; estimatesof the payoff vary, but at least $60,000 was fronted for the team's expenses by the controversial Singaporean agent Wilson Perumal.) Corruption leads to violence; violence leads to corruption. There's nothing distinctively African about that pattern—it repeats wherever a wildly popular sport and dirty politics are placed too tantalizingly in one another's way. But because the superstructure of the game is still fragile in Africa, and the political corruption often very deep-seated, it's a story that seems to occur on the continent with depressing frequency.

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Zimbabwe, whose soccer-federation head was arrested for match-fixing in August, sent a fake team to play a friendly against Malaysia in 2009. In South Africa, an official who revealed corruption in the handling of World Cup construction contracts was fired from his job, then murdered. Illegal soccer academies in Ghana lure young players with the promise of tryouts at top European clubs, then take their money and abandon them in Paris or Milan. FIFA, which is deeply committed to an image of African football as a thriving and vibrant industry, tends to downplay or ignore stories like these. African fans and journalists, too, sometimes feel that dwelling on these grim tales diminishes accomplishments—hosting a successful World Cup, producing some of the best players on earth—that ought to be celebrated.

From an outside perspective, though, a queasy feeling descends when you realize how much is hidden behind FIFA's patronizing insistence on an Africa where happy soccer fans have "shown themselves and the whole world that they are capable of achieving things," as Sepp Blatter gushed after the World Cup. Every twist in every account of Togo's fake national team seems to open onto another, more troubling possibility. For instance: Antoine Folly, the jailed co-conspirator, has served as the secretary general of an opposition political party, the Union des Démocrates Socialistes du Togo. Is he being punished by the regime for reasons that have nothing to do with soccer? It's impossible to say. The cameras keep showing cheering fans and sunlit stadiums, the Western media keeps up its stream of stories about the comic and the bizarre, and the people in charge keep their own secrets. The rest of us are left to wonder whether we're dealing not only with counterfeit players but also with counterfeit truths.

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Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.